Junction: County Road 197

As It Was in the Beginning, pgs24-29

HIBISCUS ESCULENTUS

It was 1961. "Big Bucks" were a dream for my brother and me. I looked forward to the day when I could buy a whole dollar's worth of "Bazooka" bubble gum in one mad spending spree. Jim wanted a great deal more. He envisioned a time when he would purchase a genuine cedar box turkey call (guaranteed to faithfully reproduce the mating call of a young turkey hen) for only $4.95 plus shipping and handling. It was advertised in a four-year-old copy of "Field and Stream" magazine. Jim read the advertisement every time we visited Tom Moore's barber shop on Stewart Street in Milton.

Cannabis Sativa. America's number one cash crop. Money is made with it. The margin of profit is high. Repeat sales are a natural. An officer of the law once told me that, as a boy, he helped harvest the plant for the manufacture of hemp ropes. At the time, he was not told about the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the addictive chemical component. Now that he is in law enforcement, he wishes he had never heard of the plant. We never considered growing or selling the Cannabis plant for any number of reasons. We just said "NO."

Papaver Somniferum. This is another high-profit flower— seductively red and addictive to extremes. Seedlings were not available in our area. Neither Jay Feed and Seed nor Chaver's Farm Store in Milton could supply propagation materials. The "Burpee Spring Seed Catalog" had no listing for the plant. We never tapped its potential either.

In our quest for "Big Bucks," Cannabis was out. Papaver was out. We settled on an unusual flowering plant, Malvaceae Hibiscus esculentus. H. esculentus is closely related to Malvaceae Gossypium hirsutum—cotton, as it is called by most people. It is utilitarian in nature and carries none of the bold enchantments of its cousin. The cotton plant produces a unicellular, cellulosic carbohydrate polymer fiber with zero bioavailability. Its general formula is C6H10O5, and it has a specific gravity of 1.54.

Hibiscus esculentus, on the other hand, carries mucilaginous polymerized fibrils within its seed vessel. These lend themselves to molecular restructuring when thermal energy is applied, thereby allowing rapid metabolic absorption within the body. The leaves are alternate, palmately lobed and veined with small deciduous stipules. The flowers are large, showy, and variously borne. Even a small crop of Hibiscus esculentus would be easy to spot from the air by trained observers. Covert propagation would be difficult.
The plant had its origins in Africa. There are many kinds of Hibiscus. This variety is particularly enchanting. One can imagine Queen Hatshepsut, in 1495 B.C., trafficking in the fruit of this plant. Egypt was a world power at the time—in part, I suspect, because of the influence of H. esculentus.

Presumably, the profitable slave trade practiced by traders from New England lent a hand in establishing this enticing plant on American soil. The slaves, realizing their dependency on it, smuggled valuable seeds to begin cultivation in the "New World." It thrived in the Gulf Coastal Plains. With time, the free population, as well, was caught in the alluring grip of the plant.
Amazingly, we grew it right under the noses of our parents. We did not do it alone either. I will name names. There were the Hatfield boys, Doug and Jerry; the Burch kid, Tim; the brothers, Tony and Timmy Cook; the sisters, Edna and Betty Simmons with their brother, Charlie. Danny Ellis, Joe Cook, Mac Ryals, and Ray Kelly are also implicated. Often, the entire Longmire family of Milton would join us in the venture.

At 4 a.m. these people helped us harvest the valuable crop under cover of predawn darkness. We sold it on street corners in the clear sight of the law. Cash money and product would often change hands right at the curb.

Our business contacts in Pensacola and Milton used names like "James Manning," "Harland Johnson," "Marvin and Ethel Henderson," "Warner Urquhart," "Fred Brooks," "David Bailey," and "George Haber." All have respectable names in the culinary commerce of Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties.

I have described the power of this plant to some of my Northern acquaintances. They are curious about how to extract the greatest pleasure from it. Some want to know how to smoke it. Some express concern about the spread of disease should they inject the essence with a dirty needle.

"Can you snort the seeds?" I will not tell them, but it is more simple than that.

Unlike the THC of Cannabis (marijuana), or the opium and heroin from Papaver somniferum (the poppy), all you have to do with OKRA is boil it or fry it with corn meal. Better yet, Momma stir fries it with some onions and then she adds fresh sliced tomatoes.

Served with hot buttered cornbread, and fresh white field peas you will have the stuff dreams are made of!

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THE SEEDS OF RELIGION

Intent on creating land for cultivation on our farm, Pop pressed into service the energies and talents of his children—Jim, my sister Wanda, and me. The three of us were particularly well suited to the drudgery of clearing "new ground." We had two hands apiece. We were built low to the ground. And, we did not know any better.

We cleared five or ten acres every year until Pop felt he had enough arable land to farm. Or maybe it was until we were old enough and clever enough to figure out a way to avoid the work. I am not sure which came first.

When the rains held up progress and planting time drew critically near, Pop would hire healthy, innocent, unsuspecting kids from Milton. This was not the kind of work one volunteered for. He hired Thad Pace once; Thad caught on rather early. He never came back. David Bailly (Ed and Mary's boy) tried it for a spell; he quickly found "other employment." Mac Ryals came all the way from Detroit to earn the "fruits of labor." He eventually left the migrant labor pool and became a permanent resident.

Once cleared, the first crops to grow on the fresh earth would be watermelons, okra, squash, and cucumbers. Later, we would grow sweet corn. In years to follow, field corn or soybeans flourished. Pop told us his watermelon customers insisted on melons grown in "new ground." There were some who claimed taste sensitivity to the presence of ammonium nitrate. Artificial fertilizer was forbidden.

Watermelons required fresh, natural earth. There was no alternative. The first step was to clear the land. A bulldozer took out the big trees and pushed up the debris into long ragged rows. The remaining stumps, roots, and small trees were a job for potentially idle youth or convicts. There were no convicts available in Chumuckla.

I gazed at my first field full of roots, trees, and brambles. I knew the project required the miraculous help of God. I paused and began to meditate over this problem of labor—my labor. Pop quickly observed my lack of enthusiasm.

"Get out there in that field and start picking up roots, Boy. The Lord helps them that helps themselves," he bellowed.

"Pop," I explained, "All we need is the faith of a mustard seed. If we really believe, the Lord will move those roots."

Pop was quick to reply, "To try your faith worketh patience, and I ain't got much more patience!"

"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures (anything but a root patch)," I murmured. The test of religion, at that instant, reached a fevered pitch.

"Spare the rod and spoil the child," replied Pop. His face turned crimson with anger. The carotid artery that pulsates between the upper jaw and the lower ear began to tense with increasing pressure. His eyes grew to slits. His ears were pulled back close to his precision military haircut. Then, he cut a persimmon switch from a nearby tree.

It was in those next few moments that Pop explained religion to me in a way I have never more clearly felt or understood. I made a mental note for the future. I would try my very best to avoid religious arguments with Pop. By March, the land was cleared and ready for planting.

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THE WRECK OF THE 1959

Eight pistons, roaring with the power of high-test gasoline, engine throbbing with power, drive shaft spinning, wheels turning. There could be no greater thrill for a ten-year old. To take Pop's new car for a spin, and feel the power in my hands.

No license to drive. Didn't need one; not the way I saw it. I was on private property. There was plenty of room on the farm. Driving looked easy from the passenger's seat. I had seen the folks shift gears a thousand times, and it was clearly simple to stomp (a) the accelerator (b) the clutch, or (c) the brake.

I had the facts down cold. Unfortunately, theory is sometimes difficult to translate into practice.

I took the car without permission, before the folks were out of bed. Figured I should have a private introduction to the new 1959 Ford Galaxy.

The introduction went well until the morning sun smeared a glare on the windshield. The brake, the clutch, and the accelerator became a confused tangle. When I lowered myself from my balanced perch on the steering wheel to see which pedal was where, a telephone pole jumped out and clipped the left fender.

It was only a small crunching sound. Couldn't be bad, I thought. When I finally got the machine returned to its proper place of rest and silenced the engine, I had a chance to see the damage.

Busted headlight; crunched fender; bent bumper. It was not a pretty sight—"the wreck of the 1959." As soon as Pop saw it, I knew it would make a grown man cry. Being of sound mind, my solution was simple: run away.

I went to the Davis house, where my buddy Donnie and I played horseshoes and hunted wild insects. Mrs. Davis fed both of us breakfast. Later I went with them to Jay, where Mr. Davis got a haircut. I was hoping the Davis family would adopt me, and I would never have to go home again. I figured my life in the Campbell family was over.

A phone call from home finally tracked me down. I thanked the Davises for all their kindness and went to face my fate. I was convinced it would be the end of the world, as I had come to know it.

I was surprised.

Mom and Pop explained to me that the "Wreck of the 1959" was bad, but it was better that I was O.K. Nevertheless, Pop explained, I would have to be punished for not facing up to my error in judgment. I was not punished for wrecking the car, but for not "facing the music."

Much later, after "The Wreck of the 1952" (an old Chevy pickup) and "The Wreck of the 1966," (a Ford Fairlane), I was glad I had learned the lesson early. The folks were much easier on me when I squarely faced the terms of my own predicaments.

Maybe there is a lesson in this somewhere.

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